Sir Roger Scruton, the eminent British scholar, has faced a barrage of criticism ever since he took an advisory position in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Finding his view that beautiful architecture and surroundings ought to be available to the poor, rather than just the purview of the rich, impossible to argue against, they have decided to resort to character assassination instead.
Sir Roger, Labour and Lib Dem MPs charge, is a bigot, with a particular animus towards Jews and Muslims. To anyone who has read his writings or listened to his lectures, the accusation is absurd. But as a Muslim, I find it particularly offensive.
Sir Roger has a long history of engagement with Muslims and with the culture of Islamic civilization. Unlike “interfaith” types, who tend to basically believe in nothing, Scruton is a believing Christian, but to Muslims, this is a feature, not a bug. That he would consider it a disaster if Britain’s secularization meant his own faith, the Church of England, died out and Islam became the primary religion of the country is understandable for any believer. If you believe something is the Truth, you desire its prominence. Muslims feel similar anguish at the state of Islam in the Muslim areas of the former Soviet bloc.
When I was young, we had a group of visitors from a nearby church visit the mosque’s Sunday school— the church turned out to be a “Unitarian Universalist” one, whose teacher replied to my question about their theology by explaining that, “Some of us follow an earth-based religion, some of us are atheists, and some believe in a god.” This, from a Muslim position, is just absurd; not because their theology differed from our own, but because there was no theology to speak of. (And it felt a little insulting to be considered “the same” as a belief that worships rocks!) There can be no real dialogue with someone who doesn’t believe in anything, and yet this has been the guiding principle of liberal “interfaith” discussion, to so water down the discourse that no one gets to encounter, let alone tolerate and appreciate, difference.
No amount of “interfaith” will reconcile the unitary theology of Islam and Judaism with the Trinity, and attempts to do so are insulting. But if we aim instead to focus on what our civilizations and worldview have in common, what we can learn from each other, and what poses a threat to this, there is a lot that can be accomplished. Sir Roger has been at the forefront of exactly these efforts. He has spoken at Zaytuna College, an Islamic college in a California, on God in modern society, on the meaning of conservatism, and on “Sacred Truths in a Profane World”. He has worked with Syrian Muslim architect Marwa al-Sabouni (the subject of an upcoming profile by National Review’s Marlo Safi) in her attempts to restore her battle-torn nation’s built environment in a way that respects its centuries of Islamic heritage. Al-Sabouni, in turn, is working with Dr Scruton in his efforts for better housing in Britain.
Such exchange is not without precedent; Imam Ghazali influenced Maimonides, who influenced St. Thomas Aquinas. Both of the latter were influenced by Averroes. The flow of ideas was not inhibited by the fact that all staunchly held the theologies of their respective faiths, of which each are among the most important codifiers. And as traditional religion is threatened by the laïciste turn in liberal politics and culture, the need for believers to form what Islamic scholar Timothy Winter at Cambridge calls an alliance sacrée becomes increasingly important.
As in all times of conflict and besiegement, the first need is for alliances, not only between people of faith but also between them and those who have lost their faith but not their values. Zaytuna College has set a welcome example with its excellent publication, Renovatio, in which the three revelations—the Judaic, the Christian, and the Islamic—are brought together in ways that show their intrinsic harmony, despite all the real differences.
Like HRH the Prince of Wales, who has spearheaded similar initiatives, Sir Roger Scruton engages with Islamic scholars as a Christian, from a place of respect and accepting difference, rather than an attitude that patronizes by waving it all away.
The politicians’ charge against Dr Scruton is clearly a distraction. Unable to muster real opposition to his idea that beauty should be accessible to all, which has public support, they resort to lies. Sir Roger’s own words lay out out the proper response:
In the face of this, we must show that the way of faith does not mean turning away from the secular reality. The true face of religion belongs to the re-enchantment of our injured civilization; faith is a way of filling all the spiritual spaces in our damaged world with the vision of a loving God, the God described in the Qur’an as al-Raĥmān al-Raĥīm.
In the face of lies, only truth will do.